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ATLANTIC 887; OCTOBER, 1949

 
 

 

 
Allow me to guess the reaction many readers who aren’t familiar with this record will have as they open the page containing its review…

Heads turn, ears are perked and eyebrows are raised in anticipation of hearing a song released under a title which seems to foreshadow the imminent rise of the artist in question on her way to becoming the most dominant female act of rock’s first decade.

Well, if that’s what you’re thinking don’t get your hopes up. It’s not quite what you have in mind.
 

You Can’t Judge A Book By Its Cover
One of the most telling signs that something has gone from fringe movement to mainstream style is the appropriation of the specific genre term the music has had attached to it. We’ve seen this already with rock ‘n’ roll over its first two years as more and more songs come along that have those words, singularly or together, in the title, as if trying to let the potential audience know these records are for them.

In many cases, like Wild Bill Moore’s Rock And Roll, the title helped cement the descriptive monicker into the public’s consciousness, while in other cases, such as Big John Greer’s Rockin’ With Big John, it was used more as an inducement to try and convince skeptical listeners that the unassuming saxophonist was indeed a legitimate artist in this nascent field.

So for the time being we have to take each new appearance of the words with a grain of salt, waiting and watching to see if the artist’s actions match their label’s proclamations when it comes to the type of music they’re going to pursue.

We know of course that Ruth Brown WOULD ultimately pursue rock ‘n’ roll wholeheartedly, the greatest rhythmic singer on the female side of the rock ledger for decades, someone who could inject almost any song with an infectious vitality that was impossible to resist.

But she wasn’t there yet. In fact as of this point she had no real desire to go there.

Like so many others coming of age during the 1940’s she dreamed of pop stardom, unaware, or unconcerned, that there were few black female pop stars admitted into mainstream acceptance. Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday… that’s about it. But the former Ruth Weston was nothing if not spunky and determined and she could always sing anybody under the table, not with power ironically, but with immaculate phrasing and emotional commitment. The power would come later.

After Brown’s near fatal auto accident on her way to New York in the fall of 1948 immediately after signing with Atlantic Records she spent months in the hospital recuperating before cutting her first session while still on crutches out of which came her smash hit So Long, a devastating performance on a well-worn ballad that she somehow fit into rock by virtue of her emotional reading, in the process helping to firmly establish the rock torch song approach. But it was rock by association, both the fact that the audience who picked up on it were digging the Orioles and Ravens and Amos Milburn and Roy Brown, but also let’s admit that ultimately it fits because she herself moved fully into rock ‘n’ roll just around the corner.

By the fall of 1949 she still had yet to turn that corner however and so, whether Atlantic President Ahmet Ertegun was merely trying to latch on to the groundswell of interest in rock, or whether he was hoping to subtly nudge Brown in that direction, he wrote Rocking Blues which was initially issued as the B-side to one half of her cover of Larry Darnell’s I’ll Get Along Somehow before it became obvious this was a mistake. Not that this song was unworthy of being released, but rather because the allure of the original “Somehow” was that it was a two-part record and to eliminate one part of it missed the point.

So they pulled this song from Atlantic 887 and re-issued the full unabridged two-part cover of the Darnell song to no avail, thereby making this short-lived side merely a curio in Brown’s career, interesting more for the implications of its title than the contents of her performance.
 

The Sun’s Got To Shine Someday
Though admittedly the title is misleading, especially if you’re looking for a sneak preview of her later stylistic approach, Rocking Blues is hardly a misstep in her career and it’s by no means an insignificant throwaway as it’s sometimes been painted.

What it ISN’T however is a full throttled rocker, and that’s what’s almost certainly caused it to be dismissed out of hand by those looking back at Brown’s evolution, but this provides pretty good evidence that she was more than capable of captivating you with different material… and to be honest, it’s not that far from being a worthwhile rock ballad even if that wasn’t exactly her intent when laying it down.

We’ve gone to some length around these parts to defend the ballad as a means of conveying different emotional baggage than the uptempo romps rock is most known for, saying that without the ballads to off-set those storming rockers then the entire genre might’ve overheated and run off the tracks altogether. Listeners need to shift gears both in the pacing of the music they hear, but also in the outlook of the songs themselves. Life isn’t one endless party after all and you exhaust yourself trying to pretend that it is.

Ballads provide the respite from that go-go-go mentality, offering quiet introspection in place of egocentric bravado, and since that also taps into the audience’s own doubts and internal conflicts it forges a much deeper connection than the music would if it stuck only to the fun and excitement of life on the edge.

Brown at this point specialized in those sentiments so it’s hardly surprising that Ertegun would craft a song for her in that spirit or that Brown would connect with it so naturally, giving it the feel that she was caught merely commenting off-the-cuff on her own life’s experiences.

The lyrics of Rocking Blues are pretty perfunctory. As a songwriter Ertegun was always more of an adapter than an originator, especially early on without much experience. He had a vast knowledge of older recordings and borrowed bits and pieces, if not entire frameworks, of songs he liked to come up with something suitable for his own contracted artists. You can call this theivery if you like, and usually I’m pretty harsh on that sort of thing, but I’ll give him credit when it’s due because he never merely replicated something already established as much as he merely appropriated it, then refashioned it in his own artist’s image.

This melding of old school foundations and new architectural designs was somewhat innovative and extremely effective and here Brown takes what are fairly rote sentiments and invests them with deeper meaning, stopping and starting, pausing more times than you can count, bearing down on the thoughts that seemed most meaningful to her and making them come alive through her reading.

Keep in mind all that she’s been through of late. Married on a whim to her musical partner Jimmy Brown to avoid the scrutiny of her family when they went back to Virginia, she was then ditched by him as he chased other girls and stardom of his own. Then after she’d latched on with Lucky Millinder’s famed outfit she was unceremoniously dumped in Washington D.C. after just singing once in her first month with him because he was pissed she got drinks for the band members. Left without money or contacts she landed a job at Blanche Calloway’s club to pay her way home, then did so well that Blanche hired her full-time, became her manager and helped get her with Atlantic… upon which Jimmy Brown, hearing of his “wife’s” good fortune, returned to make up with her to advance his own career which led to their car accident on the way to New York after which he left her again because he didn’t want to support a “cripple”.

So with all of that drama in her recent past it stands to reason that if ANYONE could relate to the ups and downs of love and being abandoned by a partner in life it was surely Ruth Brown.
 


 

Haven’t You Heard The News?
True to form, Brown handles her role with aplomb, nailing the emotional undercurrents with strength and conviction, her voice throbbing with a mixture of pain and determination that’s admirable to see somebody possess even if she was just playing a role.

What doesn’t quite work about this however is the thing that makes it moderately notable today, the awkward force-feeding of the rocking motive it’s saddled with. Listening to it there can’t be too much doubt that Ertegun was indeed looking to suggest some connection with the style of music that was coming to define the young black musical experience as the decade rolled to a close. But either he’s not quite sure what the word means when used in its proper context, or he doesn’t rightly care that he’s using it wrong since all he wanted to do was get the words down to lure people in.

Each time Brown has to traverse those lines about “rocking all the time” and “rocking everywhere” it fails to ring true. Yes, these lines were certainly referring to sex, as anyone listening to her claim he’ll have to return home to “get his homemade fudge” will attest, but it doesn’t fit in with the somberness the rest of the story inhabits.

She’s brokenhearted because this guy left and to keep that mood intact she can’t over-emphasize the sexual nature in a way that provokes excitement and so there’s an unavoidable disconnect between the two sentiments. But Ruth sells it the best she can, doing a pretty good balancing act in the process, leaning hard on the payoffs without letting it tip over completely and causing it to upend the earlier misery.

Though her voice still leans a little too much on the arrangement to lead the way that’s probably due as much to the lack of any flexibility in its melodic components as it is her lack of experience since we’ve already seen her stretch out more on So Long simply because it was a more formidable composition.

For the most part though Brown works seamlessly with the band, saxophonist Budd Johnson’s group, who provide understated backing, not trying to oversell this but still letting the drummer add the right emphasis to get some of the suggestiveness across without forcing Ruth to carry the entire load.

It’s a good record overall that’s for sure, even if it’s not the ideal record for advancing her career at this point. Brown doesn’t turn water into wine by any means but still manages to elevate this far past what it might’ve been in lesser hands, injecting a good deal of her personality into it, showing signs of being far more adaptable to both slinkier and more rocking material in the process.
 

 
While it’s fair to say Rocking Blues can’t do much to advance rock’s position in the world, nor did it even get much of a chance to further establish Brown, it gave more notice that she was someone to reckon with artistically if nothing else. You wonder what the reaction might’ve been had THIS been released as the A-side and they dumped the Darnell cover altogether, which after all couldn’t hope to compete with the original, and replaced it with something like the unissued self-composed Rain Is A Bringdown as the B-side instead. If that had happened would this cut have been more widely embraced then or in the years since?

I think it might’ve been. Not great in of itself maybe, but hinting at greatness if only she could get her hands on the right material to work her magic on.

Far from being just a piece of trivia in Brown’s phenomenally successful career, this may not have been a building block of her success but maybe it was the mortar used to hold together some of those more formidable bricks that soon went up in The House That Ruth Built.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of Ruth Brown for the complete archive of her records reviewed to date)